A group of highly influential Christian conservative leaders met over the weekend to discuss their rising dissatisfaction with the Republican Party and their willingness to consider supporting a third-party presidential bid should a supporter of abortion rights — specifically, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani — earn the GOP presidential nomination.
The meeting took place during a weekend convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, of the highly secretive Council for National Policy, an invitation-only organization of conservative leaders founded in 1981. Participants in the presidential discussion, however, said the smaller gathering was not an official CNP event.
Those at the smaller meeting included James Dobson of Focus on the Family, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, and Richard Viguerie, a direct mail pioneer, who recently authored "Conservatives Betrayed: How George W. Bush and Other Big Government Republicans Hijacked the Republican Base."
Viguerie told ABC News that the meeting was attended by "nationally known conservative leaders, and we took a very strong stand against supporting any pro-abortion candidate.
"Giuliani is beyond the pale," Viguerie said. "It's just not going to happen. There's no way that conservative leaders are going to support a pro-abortion candidate. It was unanimous."
Sentiment among his fellow "value voter conservatives" was so strong, Viguerie said, there was "overwhelming support to consider that idea" of a third-party presidential candidate in the event that Giuliani wins the Republican presidential nomination.
Such a move is not a "done deed," he said, but he described how he'd been angry at the Republican Party for six years. "In the last six months, I've seen a vast majority of my colleagues, at the national level, move in that direction, including a willingness to go third party. They're even further along on the third-party idea than I am," Viguerie said.
Gary Bauer, who participated in the smaller discussion by phone, issued a statement Sunday evening, urging his friends to "be cautious," since he couldn't "think of a bigger disaster for social conservatives, defense conservatives and economic conservatives, than Hillary Clinton in the White House."
That said, Bauer, a former 2000 presidential candidate and current chairman of the Campaign for Working Families, seemed to agree that Giuliani's nomination would hurt the Republican Party, observing "that there are certain core issues for the Republican Party — low taxes, strong defense, and pro-life — and if we nominate someone who is hostile on one of those three things, it will blow up the GOP."
Asked for a response, the Giuliani campaign sent a statement from Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, who has endorsed the former mayor, saying, "Conservatives are rallying around the one candidate with the executive experience and proven leadership our country needs. Mayor Giuliani will be successful in the primary and the general elections, because Republicans want a candidate who is strong on the terrorists' war on us, gets fiscal discipline, and can beat the Democratic nominee."
The Giuliani campaign also pointed to a recent Gallup poll indicating that Giuliani was essentially tied with former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson among Republicans who attend church weekly. That same poll indicated that, among those GOP voters who describe themselves as "born again or evangelical," more said Giuliani would be an acceptable GOP nominee — 69 percent — than said the same about any of his rivals.
Vice President Dick Cheney and presidential candidate Mitt Romney, the former Republican governor of Massachusetts, addressed the larger Council for National Policy gathering.
The discontent of conservative Christian leaders with the current crop of Republican presidential front-runners has been apparent for months.
In May, Dobson wrote a column in which he said, "I cannot, and will not, vote for Rudy Giuliani in 2008. It is an irrevocable decision. If given a ... choice between him and Sens. Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama, I will either cast my ballot for an also-ran, or, if worst comes to worst, not vote in a presidential election for the first time in my adult life. My conscience and my moral convictions will allow me to do nothing else."
Many thought Thompson's entry into the race would quell rumblings of a third-party challenge. But, in his short time on the campaign trail, Thompson has demonstrated a moderate temperament and an independent streak belying hype that he would be the answer to Dobson's prayers.
In September, The Associated Press obtained an e-mail Dobson sent, criticizing Thompson as "the candidate who is opposed to a constitutional amendment to protect marriage, believes there should be 50 different definitions of marriage in the U.S., favors McCain-Feingold" — the campaign-finance reform law — "won't talk at all about what he believes, and can't speak his way out of a paper bag on the campaign trail ... He has no passion, no zeal, and no apparent 'want to.' And yet, he is apparently the Great Hope that burns in the breasts of many conservative Christians? Well, not for me, my brothers. Not for me!"
Viguerie suggested the other two GOP front-runners, Romney and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., are not faring much better among his colleagues.
"There is just zero — zero — interest in John McCain," he said. "There was some fairly strong opposition to Romney that I've detected lately, but it's still an open door. He could convince conservatives, but it's an uphill battle. He's still got work to do."
The issues he and his colleagues have with the Republican Party go far beyond abortion, Viguerie said.
"I was talking to one of the very, very top value voter leaders the other day," he recounted. "And he told me, 'I can't tell you how many times I called [former White House deputy chief of staff] Karl Rove at the White House and pleaded with him to give us a token appointment.' We're tired of being treated like a mistress. In so many private meetings, they assured us how much they love us and appreciate us. But then their attitude is: 'If you see me on the street, don't speak to me, and whatever you do, don't come to my club.'
"We have been used and abused by the Republican Party," he said. "So, maybe it's just time to never support another Republican establishment candidate, and support principled conservative candidates — win or lose."